AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Transportation released its draft environmental impact statement in late December, a 500-page document outlining its expansion plans along Interstate 35 through the downtown corridor. With those plans comes the displacement of more than 100 businesses, residences and properties along the highway.
Now through March 7, residents can review the documents and leave feedback on the proposed changes. Tucker Ferguson, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer, told KXAN a finalized decision on project design and scope will come in August, with construction starting as early as mid-2024.
For those properties marked for displacement, Ferguson said funding for right-of-way (ROW) acquisition and property relocations is managed out of TxDOT’s central office at a statewide scale. Ferguson said the department is working through finalized appraisals of all properties involved before determining the official dollar amount needed for the 107 properties poised for displacement.
“We do have a statewide pool of funds that we use for relocations and right-of-way acquisitions because many of our projects across the state are going through the same thing,” he said. “And it, really, is determined based on a project-by-project basis for those individual parcels and properties.”
The EIS draft outlined TxDOT’s modified build alternative three as the preferred version of the project, due to its environmental and safety factors paired with a minimized displacement footprint, Ferguson said. Some features from the selected design include two lowered high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, boulevard-like frontage road sections and the removal of I-35’s upper decks, among other elements.
Another proposal up for consideration, the modified build two version, proposed a larger ROW and more property displacements. Ultimately, that option wasn’t selected as the preferred path forward.
“We’ve narrowed the corridor down and the footprint is narrow as possible and still meets the need and the purpose of the project,” Ferguson said. “So all of the property owners, all the tenants will be contacted — if not already, will be contacted in the near future — to start walking through that process and we will be offering relocation assistance and other mitigation factors for qualified residents and qualified tenants.”
A TxDOT spokesperson said the department has already contacted three of eight businesses that cater specifically to minority communities: Two CommUnityCare facilities and Escuelita del Alma, a Spanish immersion preschool.
Jimmy’s Barbershop, one of those eight businesses, told KXAN Wednesday it’s still awaiting that call, not realizing it was in the line of displacement.
“I feel real disappointed about that,” said Donny Rivera, a barber at Jimmy’s. “I wouldn’t know where to start off at. It’s such a good spot, and it’s right off 35. And it’s easy to find us. And I wouldn’t know what to do or where we would restart at.”
In addition to displacements, some residents have expressed concerns about the project’s footprint and whether there’s merit to expanding the highway. ReThink35, a grassroots community growth opposed to the project, referred to the project in September as a “massively damaging highway expansion.”
Ferguson disagreed with that assessment, saying demand along I-35 will continue to grow regardless of whether the project comes to fruition. He said his hope is that expanded capacity means more people getting to their destinations at a less congested level.
“What we are really focused on though is the addition of the capacity that we are adding and we’re very pleased that it’s focused on moving people and not just vehicles,” he said, pointing to those HOV public transit and carpool lanes.
TxDOT will host an in-person and virtual public hearing on the draft proposal on Feb. 9. The in-person hearing runs from 5-7 p.m. while the virtual version will be available at 5 p.m. Residents can weigh in and comment on the project through March 7.
The full EIS draft is available online for viewing.